You’re not going to find (National Outdoor Leadership School) NOLS on any Fortune lists; it falls well outside of the typical corporate lense. (However, it was #54 for the top 100 places to work according to Outside Magazine. For those of you not in the know, according to the website, NOLS “takes students of all ages on remote wilderness expeditions and teaches them technical outdoor skills, leadership, and environmental ethics.” The trips, called courses, range from ten days to six months of backcountry travel in a variety of environmental conditions.
For part of my life, I want to work for a company like NOLS. I went through a similar program when I was in high school, and I am involved with the outdoor education program on campus. This program seems like a good employer because it effectively delivers a challenging outdoor experience that utilizes both soft and hard skills, something that I am passionate about. Outdoor programs like this one are known for having knowledgeable trip guides that will let their group get “lost” to teach a lesson about map and compass. The guides know how to deliver an excellent backcountry experience. One alum stated, “It was the time of my life. It completely changed and matured me as a person.”
According to NOLS’ website, working for this company means “being leader, having a flexible schedule, living in beautiful surroundings, making a difference in people’s lives, and gaining skills and experience.” Staff characteristics include a “demonstrated excellence in leadership, a strong performance in teaching, solid expedition and interpersonal skills, and experience supervising other instructors.” To be a NOLS trip leader, you work on a course by course basis. In other words, you do not ever technically have a full time job; you might just have several courses back to back over a season or a year. Outside Online notes the kind of lifestyle reflective of a NOLS trip leader, “Here, employees are more likely to wear Chacos than dress shoes, which better prepares them for frequent post-work climbs or hikes.”
However, reviews of the working conditions painted a mixed picture. Some loved the experience: “Lots off time off, play first, work second. Flexible hours in an awesome location. People value good communication and your opinion.”
And: “Excellent financial management and policies. Very dedicated employees to mission and student experiences. NOLS is an excellent place to work and your contribution as a staff member is clearly appreciated and valued. Very participative management style of senior leadership.”
Last: “Once you’re in the good graces of the staffing department and certified, you can (theoretically) pick up work whenever you want for the rest of your active life, though especially during the summers.”
However this last one holds a caveat that starts to raise an alarm, “once you’re in the good graces.” How long does this take? What do you have to do to earn the trust of the staff, especially for a new guide?
Another reviewer of NOLS stated flatly, “It’s difficult to get initial contracts.”
This sentiment escalated to, “Staffing uses threats to get people to take contracts. “You aren’t working this Summer because your dad died and you need to be with your family? Welp, no contracts for you this fall, winter or spring.”
For a program that is nationally renown, it seems that there are mix feelings about the out-of-course work conditions. Not a single complaint ever surfaced (that I could find) about poor course conditions or locations. The complaints came from the logistical side of things before and after courses- stingy management practices, unwelcoming to new and diverse guides, favoritism for course placement. However, the main complaints are not unique to this particular program, but rather are typical issues industry wide.
In the end, I still would work for this company, because the courses themselves outweigh any negative BS I would have to deal with in order to get lead the trips. It is clear that the negative work environment does not translate to a negative course experience. I am glad that I researched this company. It has given me a little bit more insight about the kind of job I am looking to pursue, and what the most obvious downsides to this kind of work lifestyle would be.